In response to:

Do Our Public Schools Threaten National Security? from the June 7, 2012 issue


Copyright ©1962 by Maurice Sendak, renewed 1990 by Maurice Sendak

‘H: having headaches’; drawing by Maurice Sendak for Alligators All Around, from his Nutshell Library, 1962

To the Editors:

In the June 7 issue, Diane Ravitch weaves a story that bears little resemblance to the reality of America’s education and economy that millions of families and our nation’s leaders understand [“Do Our Public Schools Threaten National Security?”].

Ravitch rejects the fact that US schools are (and have been) failing on the basis that the United States still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world.

Ravitch, whose own view of public education used to be much gloomier than it is today, ignores the long-term impacts of America’s failure to educate to global standards. She overlooks key facts, including:

• Peer nations are outperforming the United States on global exams and graduations.

• Over the past decade, the US share of global output has been steadily shrinking and US economic growth has been a third as fast as emerging nations’ growth.

• Numerous surveys, including the Federal Reserve’s most recent Beige Book, show that US businesses are having “difficulty finding qualified workers, especially for high-skilled positions.”

Based on a shaky foundation of denial, Ravitch misrepresents and rejects the three recommendations that the thirty members of our bipartisan task force endorsed. (It is important to note that although some members contributed partial dissents, each member endorsed the report overall.)

First, although Ravitch has recently argued that American students should learn “arts, science, history, literature, geography, civics, foreign languages” in addition to math and reading, she dismissed the task force’s recommendation that US students deserve a stronger, broader, and more consistent academic foundation.

Second, we argued that states should devise and implement their own choice policies to give good options to poor families. We were firm in our commitment to choice but not nearly as prescriptive as some—or as Ravitch herself was in 2001 when she argued for vouchers because they would give “poor kids a chance to escape the schools that are cruelly not educating them.”

Ravitch resorts to name-calling to attack our final recommendation that the federal government incentivize a national audit that measures if schools are teaching skills and that keeps Americans focused on our shared educational goals.

We encourage your readers to read our report and consider our findings and recommendations in the context of ensuring our nation’s strength, security, and competitiveness.

Julia Levy
Project Director
Council on Foreign Relations Task Force on US Education Reform and National Security

Diane Ravitch replies:

As Julia Levy’s letter shows, the task force report was not a balanced investigation of the strengths and weaknesses of American public education; it was written as a brief to prove that public education is “failing” and thus “a very grave national security threat.”

A fair assessment of public education would acknowledge that high school graduation rates are today the highest in our history for every group, whether white, black, Hispanic, low-income, middle-income, or high-income. It would also acknowledge that scores in reading and math on federal tests are at their highest point in history for every group of students. These easily ascertained facts, reported by federal agencies, are nowhere mentioned in the task force report.

The task force report was not an impartial review of the evidence. It insisted on the “failure” of public education without recognizing that poor academic performance is invariably concentrated where there is poverty and racial isolation. It offered no recommendation to address the root causes of poor academic performance.

Its proposals are not grounded in evidence. The “Common Core” standards have been endorsed by forty-five states and their value is not yet known since they have never been given a trial anywhere. The task force report treats school choice—vouchers and charters—as a major strategy for innovation and higher test scores. But school choice remains unproven after twenty years of trial. In Ohio, for example, only twenty-three of three hundred charters are in the top half of academic performance in the state; in the Detroit area, only six of twenty-five charters have higher test scores than the Detroit public schools. Why assert that more of the same will improve American education?

Levy correctly notes that I once shared the task force’s gloomy assessment of American public schools. She cites a statement I made a decade ago when I was a member of two conservative think tanks that promoted school choice. As she must surely know, I wrote a book to explain why I was wrong, and why school choice was actually harming American education.

A decent society requires good public schools. The primary role of public schools is not to raise test scores but to raise citizens, people who can vote wisely in elections, serve on juries, and sustain our democracy into the future. We have many good public schools that are valued community institutions. We would have many more if we resolved to reduce poverty and racial isolation.